"The thing about Rihanna," Tony Cozier said to me, "is that she just can't stop calling me."

Just as I was about to take him seriously, he started to chuckle.

"Come on, kid, it's a joke."

I was in my early twenties and had just landed my first proper job. I was a production assistant for a company that worked on live cricket coverage for South Africa's public broadcaster, SABC. It was the summer of 2007, West Indies were touring and Cozier was the guest commentator. My responsibilities included arranging his travel and accommodation, letting him know when he would be on air and with who, passing him any statistical titbits, and just generally being around to help. My ring tone was Rihanna's smash hit "Umbrella" and it gave me an immediate connection to Mr Cozier, who insisted I call him Tony. So Tony it was.

In spare moments during that series, I would often find myself talking to Tony. I wanted to become a print journalist and I wanted his advice on how to go about it. Tony told me about his father's newspaper, how he got his first gig at 15, and his degree from Ottawa. He advised me to do the same - get some extra education - and to be as persistent as I could. He also showed me pictures of his granddaughters, whom he loved dearly.

Once, after a lunch in which I wolfed down a pasta and Tony ate only fruit salad because "I can't eat in the day time when it's this hot", he gave me what I considered an endorsement, especially as he had seen some of my earliest work. "Keep asking, keep writing and have a bit of fun along the way. That's the important thing. Have some fun." We ended the afternoon with a Bacardi Breezer and a chilled Sauvignon Blanc.

When Tony said goodbye at the end of that summer, he bought me a gift - Rihanna's first album - and advised me to do my journalism honours degree, keep trying to get published and change my ringtone. I did all three.

Tony was one of the first people I emailed when I wrote my first story for ESPNcricinfo, two years after that. He followed my career, often emailing me when he thought I had written something that caught his eye.

In 2011, after a longer-than-usual break in communication, Tony told me he had been ill but was "on the improve" after having his gall bladder removed. By 2012, he talked about being "just about fully back to normal", and even told me there was a chance we would cross paths at the 2013 Champions Trophy.

Tony bought me a gift - Rihanna's first album - and advised me to do my journalism honours degree, keep trying to get published and change my ringtone. I did all three

Although I had seen Tony on television before that, when I saw him in Cardiff, at the match between South Africa and West Indies, I was taken aback by how different he looked. "You've lost so much weight," I remember telling him. "So have you," came his sharp reply. We had promised to make a plan to have dinner but with the schedule the way it was, we never did.

When West Indies toured South Africa in the 2014-15 season, I expected to see Tony again but he said he would not be making the trip. Although he was pleased with how my career was progressing, he had also had enough of watching West Indies' decline. "I look forward to more of it [your work] during the West Indies series," he wrote to me. "Let me rephrase that. I dread what depressing news you'll bring during the West Indies series."

Tony advised me to try and interview Kragg Braithwaite and Jason Holder, both members of his club, Wanderers, in Barbados. "They are two really good lads," he said. "Tell them you'd been in touch with me."

I got to do a proper piece on Holder a few months later, at the 2015 World Cup, when I was analysing him as a young leader. I emailed Tony for some information and he began his reply with what I consider some of the finest praise I have ever received: "Whenever I turn on my computer, you're all over it, video and audio reporting and interviewing and on the byline of articles. I'm not complaining! It's good to see, hear and read you and know that you've so successfully pressed on since 2007." I knew if it hadn't been for Tony, I might never have got to that point. I thanked him for believing in me.

The last time I heard from Tony was earlier this year, when he told me he was "as fine as could be expected for someone for whom the years are passing by far too quickly". Something was different about his tone.

When I heard yesterday that Tony was in hospital, I sent him an email, in hope. Communication with friends in the West Indies soon led me to realise it was unlikely Tony would ever read it. A few hours later I heard the news of his passing. I lost my grandmother a little over a week ago and today, it felt like I lost a grandfather. I will listen to that Rihanna CD in his memory.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent